Thursday, September 1, 2011

Viv Ayiti

When I first visited Haiti in May of last year I went with - among other things - the express purpose of coming back with a harrowing article for you all. Something about the cruelty of fate or the human condition. Like a CNN Special Report sans the Anderson Cooper. Yet, after an entire summer of contemplation and even a second visit, I still have very little I can say. My impressions and feelings are difficult to vocalize. Above all, Haiti is a melting pot filled with bizarre juxtapositions, contradictions and non-sequitors. Take, for instance, the man in the "Harvard Law" t-shirt who sells bread on the corner, or the lonely Domino's Pizza sign standing in front of a vacant field. Take Port-au-Prince, with a Colonial Church looming eerily over a neighboring tent town; Take the Texaco gas station in a city seemingly paved with built-in potholes.

Haiti is a bizarre dreamland where nothing quite is as it seems. It's like wearing a shoe and being unsure if it's too big or too small, or hearing a chord with a stray sour note. I am more than anything just flat out not sure what to make of it.

I remember sitting by the pool at my mother's house in P-A-P this past weekend. I happened to be staring vacantly at the wall that divided our and our neighbor's yards, and I suddenly noticed that the bricks weren't overlapping. It struck me as odd because I didn't understand what reason the builders would have for doing that... I don't believe it's that much cheaper to build walls like that, though I guess it might be slightly easier... If this was the standard for other construction it's no small wonder that the country was so completely devastated by a large-scale earthquake. Thankfully, after the earthquake the Embassy took the time to inspect all of their still-standing structures to make sure they were up to American code

One of the more festive shops...

Having had both parents assigned to Haiti and having visited twice, I've heard a lot of the stories of what happened during and before the earthquake. One woman had just received a guest into her home and was giving her tour. As they stepped out into the garden, the earth shook and the house collapsed behind them. In a different part of town the Embassy had rented out a two-story apartment complex. At the time of the earthquake this complex was empty; all of its residents were on shuttles headed home from school and work. They arrived to find their homes pancaked into the street. In a condo neighborhood just recently completed before the earthquake, witnesses reported watching the peripheral security wall wobble as if made out of Jell-O.

The country was already in such difficulties that this wrench in the gears should have just completely destroyed the machine. Hell, here in the "civilized" world we start riot over sporting events. Yet these people don't turn over your car in the street. One of the major problems during the earthquake relief effort was that the tent cities being built in and around Port-au-Prince were being populated by people who hadn't lost their homes in the disaster. They saw food and shelter being given out on a daily basis and decided to take advantage of the situation, cheating those who most needed the aide. I don't consider them to be bad people. It was simply a matter of desperation

"Jesus Christ is coming to take the chosen ones, 21 May 2011"

What truly left me in awe after my visit was the resignation of the Haitian people. I spoke to a middle-class Haitian who jokingly said they "only complain when things are good". Where they find the strength to wake up every morning and say, "I'm going to go out into the streets and walk until I sell all of these mangoes," is a complete mystery to me. Their faith is certainly strong. That's easy to see in the names they give their "buses", which they call "tap-taps" and are any variety of re-purposed auto, most commonly a pick-up truck with an added seating area. "Merci Man Man Marie" (Thank You Mother Mary), "Dieux Tout Capab" (All-Capable God), and "Romains 12 v12" (Romans 12:12). These names also find a place in the huge grass-roots lottery industry - another sign of their faith in Fortuna.

"Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer."

I think that quote really sums up the Haitian people right there. They are proud, faithful, and resigned to do their best in their circumstances, and their situation doesn't seem to be getting much better, even with a new President. Martelly has expressed his frustrations with the Haitian government, where funds to build housing for the poor are locked away, but he could immediately begin work on a summer home for himself if he so chose. Haiti is basically run by twelve wealthy families who control the government and all major industry in the country. It's a modern-day oligarchy with a Democratic mask - and what a mask! Members of the Haitian Congress receive a salary of $10,000 US per month, which you can imagine is an obscene amount of money to have in a country so poor.

What's even more bizarre is the series of contributions Haiti has made to History that few are even aware of. Infamous buccaneer Jean LaFitte was born in Port-au-Prince around 1782 - he would later be largely influential in helping us win the War of 1812 in the Battle of New Orleans. Haiti gave Simón Bolívar the military and financial assistance that may have made all the difference in his fight to liberate New Granada (which we know today as the countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela). Throughout the 60s and 70s, Haitian doctors, professors, and other intellectuals who fled the tyrannical rule of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier contributed significantly to the development of former French colonies in Africa. So, what happened to Haiti?

The hole in the middle of the square was once a police booth, torn down because it was haunted.

Consider their Eastern neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Comparing Gross Domestic Product, The DR comes in at around $93 Billion, while Haiti trails behind at not quite $11 Billion. Haiti is nearly half the size of its neighbor but has a slightly higher population. On the Human Development Index (which measures relative living standards), the DR scores 0.663 (medium) and Haiti only 0.404 (low). I think ultimately the problems stemmed from squabbling factions and the country's inability to maintain the economic strength it had before its independence that was supported by the 90% slave population.

Of course, we could sit here and ponder and muse all day long over the reasons for Haiti's trouble and still the people of Haiti would be living in tents. The most we can do is support programs that help Haitians and others like them around the world. Ultimately, though, it's up to the Haitian people to take fate into their own hands, because no amount of international intervention can change the hearts of a people resigned.

There is a popular Haitian proverb that says "Dye mon, gen mon," behind every mountain is another mountain. It means that no matter how many obstacles we overcome, there will always be more to face in the future. Perhaps it's not about fighting the circumstances you're in, but about making the best of them, and perhaps, in that sense, the Haitian people have it all right?

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